San Francisco has already seen historic declines in its inmate population as low-level offenders are released into alternatives to incarceration including electronic monitoring and home detention, but health officials and others would like to see it drop even lower. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

To control virus, doctor overseeing SF jails seeks ‘rapid reduction’ of inmate population

Medical official sets goal for shrinking inmate count from 924 to as low as 700

The doctor responsible for the health of inmates at County Jail said Tuesday that San Francisco should release hundreds of people from behind bars to curtail the spread of coronavirus after a deputy tested positive for the respiratory illness.

Dr. Lisa Pratt, the director of Jail Health Services, called for a “rapid reduction” of the jail population to between 700 to 800 inmates in a letter to criminal justice leaders including the police chief, sheriff and district attorney.

Scaling back the population would “provide an opportunity to create distance between people in cells and mitigate the spread of infection,” Pratt said in the letter obtained by the San Francisco Examiner.

“The most effective strategy to mitigate transmission is social distancing,” Pratt said. “This is very difficult to implement in correctional institutions where people are in close contact with each other and have very limited freedom of movement.”

San Francisco has already seen historic declines in its inmate population as low-level offenders are released into alternatives to incarceration including electronic monitoring and home detention.

While the average daily population for last month was 1,105 inmates, there were 924 inmates in the various jail facilities as of Tuesday morning, according to the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department.

Pratt urged leaders to consider releasing inmates older than the age of 60 or with underlying health conditions. Last week, she told the Examiner that she had provided the courts with a list of 45 inmates who are aging or unwell.

“I believe that we are in a public health crisis that endangers the lives of incarcerated people, the staff that work in the jail and the community at large,” Pratt wrote. “I urge you to move quickly and creatively to continue to divert people from jail and remove incarcerated people from this dangerous congregate setting as much as possible during this time.”

Even before a deputy who worked at the Hall of Justice jail was confirmed to have tested positive for the coronavirus on Sunday, there was widespread consensus among criminal justice leaders that the population should be reduced.

Last Friday, the San Francisco Superior Court signed off on the early releases of 26 inmates who were due to complete their sentences within 60 days. Both the public defender and district attorney had agreed to the releases.

On Tuesday, District Attorney Chesa Boudin told the Examiner he was not surprised to read Pratt’s letter.

“I am determined to do what I can to make her job possible,” Boudin said. “It means systematically reducing the jail population to allow her and her team to effectively contain COVID-19 when it starts to spread among the jail population.”

Boudin said his staff is creating lists of all inmates at County Jail to determine who can be released early based on various factors including age and release date. His office is also considering negotiating settlements with certain inmates that would allow them to be released on probation.

“We are doing everything we can on all fronts to reduce the number of people in the jail,” Boudin said. When asked whether it was possible to reduce the population by at least 124 to meet Pratt’s goal, Boudin said, “Where there is a will, there is a way.”

The letter comes on the same day that Supervisor Sandra Fewer introduced legislation to require the closure of the seismically unstable jail at the Hall of Justice within six months over concerns about the health and safety of the inmates and staff at the facility.

At the Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday, Fewer said her concerns were “significantly compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic and the risk of spreading in this facility where social distancing is basically impossible.”

The legislation seeks to close the facility, called County Jail No. 4, by the beginning of November. Mayor London Breed had previously ordered for the closure of decrepit facility by July 2021.

The legislation would also set a goal for San Francisco to keep its jail population below 1,044 inmates at the two remaining facilities, jails No. 2 and No. 5, and create a Sentencing Commission focused on reducing the population.

But the commission would be blocked from considering sending inmates to another county like Alameda as a solution, or adding new jails beds including through the renovation of an old facility like the one in San Bruno.

Sheriff Paul Miyamoto has supported both options as a means to reduce the jail population and close County Jail No. 4.

The legislation would also prevent the commission from proposing the expansion of electronic monitoring.

Miyamoto strongly opposed the legislation in a statement. He said the jail would be the third that San Francisco has closed since 2010, totalling more than 1,000 beds.

“As written, the Supervisor’s legislation is not only irresponsible, it is a threat to public safety,” Miyamoto said. “However, we remain open and committed to working with Supervisor Fewer’s office on a responsible plan to close County Jail No. 4 while maintaining public safety.”

And amid the coronavirus crisis, a spokesperson for Miyamoto said closing the jail would further restrict the implementation of social distancing as a public health measure in the jails.

“We would not be able to maintain our social distancing protocols at County Jails No. 2 and 5 if County Jail No. 4 were to be closed in November,” said sheriff’s spokesperson Nancy Crowley. “It would put the inmates at risk.”

mbarba@sfexaminer.com

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